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A few thoughts about workwear…

I’ve been meaning to write something about workwear for a while now, but find myself prompted now by my friend Svante “Urban Hippie” Nybyggars writing a piece about it over on the excellent site Denimhunters. While I for the most part agree with Svantes sentiments about workwear, I feel inspired to chip in with my 2 øre on the matter.

Workwear… Depending who you ask, the definition will vary. By quite a lot. Ask a really old guy and he’ll describe his rugged and simple cotton coveralls. Ask a young carpenter and he’ll show you his high-tech modern purpose-made workgear. Ask the 30 year old hipster dude and he’ll show you his authentically reproduced 1920’s style ranch worker jeans. Who has correctly defined workwear?

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Workwear, 2014 style.

Well, in 2014 I’d argue it’s the young carpenter and his mainly man-made fibre, kevlar reinforced and built to perform gear. That is what a worker needs, that is workwear. Yet, it’s not what we’re really talking about when we are talking workwear, right? And will we be digging around for this type of stuff in 20 years time, hoping to find that vintage pair of Snickers outdoor carpenters pants from 2014?

I can’t really see it. Then again, maybe that has always been the case. What is junk of today may be the gold of the future, as hard as it may seem to us now.

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No, what we talk about when we talk about workwear is vintage stuff, or more specifically, vintage styled stuff. The look from a time when life was simpler and men were men. Where they made their living doing manly things, in their rugged outfits. Farmers, blacksmiths, labourers and machinists. Working with their hands. Real men. And therein I think the draw really lies, in a time where men were really men. Not so much in the wearing smelly old vintage overalls.

I’m a man and I make a comfortable living, yet the skill I sell is my mind. I don’t sell my muscles or my handiwork, not do I get paid for the risk I take or the danger I face. The closest to a real hazard in the workplace is probably the risk of spilling a mug of coffee on myself. Yet I do like to wear mainly rugged style clothing.

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Genuine vintage blokes ready for some work in their working clothes.

So why do we hark back to the simple, rugged cuts of the vintage workwear? Are we trying to gain manliness through the wearing of such masculine clothing? Are we so emasculated today that we have to engage in a little dressing up to be men? Does this really work for us? Touchy questions indeed. Given how so much of the heritage revival scene is more LARP (Live Action Role Play) and CosPlay (Costume Play) than a true revival, it does seem more about the make-believe than something real.

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Whillas & Gunn outback-style workwear waistcoat.

Yet I find that it does work for me. I much prefer the heavy fabrics, the comfortable fits, the traditional cuts, the high waist, braces, good pockets and, yes, the solid and built to last construction. They feel good, and the inherent quality is reassuring. Naturally much of what is sold as “workwear” is really just pretend stuff, stealing the style and nothing else, but some of those that do it well actually do make good garments.

“Buy good clothes and wear them a long time” is a variation of the “buy good things and use them a long time”. Definitely a sentiment I feel I can stand behind, though I could shamefully admit that the logical extrapolation of this is is less easy to follow, i.e. “buy only what you actually need”. I don’t think I’m alone in this though, many of those that are into this style of clothing don’t buy a pair of jeans every couple of year and wear them into the ground. There is a definite sense of collecting about the whole thing, not in the least helped by there being a lot of really nice clothing being made.

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Jack & Jones sad t-shirt with “deadstock workwear” print.

The fact that the vintage workwear aesthetic is currently fashionable is not lost on the bigger mainstream brands. One of the most laughable (and sad) attempts to cash in on this is by Jack & Jones, where they try to sell their crummy t-shirts as not only “workwear” but also “dead stock”. As if these cheap and nasty t-shirts have been lying around just waiting to be dusted off and sold again. And the worst part? I’ve seen people wearing this rubbish.

prisoner suit

Window display at Fein und Ripp, Berlin, showing their deadstock prisoner suit.

Dead stock is of course a real term, and kind of fascinating in a certain respect. It refers to something that was not used or sold at the time it was made, but was then rediscovered years later. Many years later, in some cases. I’ve previously written about Fein und Ripp, the small Berlin shop that specialises in mainly dead stock workwear, and prisoner suits.

There are also companies such as Hansen Garments that do short runs of some of their items when a suitable dead stock fabric is located. New workwear created from vintage fabrics? That is starting to feel a little more authentic. Totally contrived, of course, but we’ve already established that it’s not the actual grubby and real authentic vintage stuff we’re after.

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A smelly old coverall. Not attractive workwear, right?

I’ll even go out on a limb and say that I want my vintage styled workwear to be “box fresh”. I don’t want it to be ready-worn, not authentically by some long dead handyman, nor “designer-worn” by some wear-artist with hand tools and acid in a sweatshop in Asia. I want my denim heavy and raw, my tweeds thick and richly coloured, my waistcoats of rugged cotton twill, my boots and shoes to be ruggedly soled. I want stuff that feels like it matters.

We may live in times where real men are only to be seen on Discovery channel, but at least let me be man enough to let my workwear reflect the work I do. It may be only coffee stains and bicycle seat wear, but it’s all mine.

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8 Responses to “A few thoughts about workwear…”

  1. Svante Nybyggars

    Thanks for the kind words. A very well-informed text about workwear, as always when you write.

    Reply
  2. Antoine Becaglia (@AntoineBecaglia)

    “Workwear” , yet another word (like streetwear) with meaning rendered meaningless by “marketing” and retailers…genuine workwear would not appeal to the main public if not transformed by the like of Jack & Jones or Ralph Lauren (would I dare mentioning Cat). Workwear in France was dismissed plainly…who’d want to wear factory “bleus”? Having lived in Canada I remember not seeing any axemen wearing “lumberjacks” shirts and jackets at all! Funnily in the UK most builders I meet only wear jogging bottoms and layers of sweat shirts as “workwear”…go figure

    Reply
  3. tiredofnarcissim

    while i do not inherently disagree with your point, as someone who makes a living doing manual labor (slate roofing, copper brazing, sheet metal) I actually do not know anyone who wears all these “new fangled” work wear items. most of us wear plain shorts when it is hotter than hell, denim when it is mild – cold, and wear quilted canvas overalls when it is well below freezing. the only items we drop serious money on are boots and tools, and when I say boots I do not mean redwing beckmans (utterly useless). maybe men have continued being men all this time, and those bored at desks have only “drank the kool-aid” of advertising and imagined some other reality. quit looking in the mirror and go build something.

    Reply
    • Well Dressed Dad

      Thanks for the feedback! With regards to what people actually wear when doing manual labour (which is where “workwear” really comes from), it probably depends hugely on where you work. Here in Norway carpenters and roof-layers would be wearing made to purpose modern workwear, with the necessary pockets, protections and strengthening to ensure the wearer has the best conditions to work in. Plus a hardhat and hi-visibility vest. The point of my post was to point out that the 1930’s French workwear which is is currently fashionable as menswear and that was very likely what workmen of the time actually did wear, is a style of menswear that will stay fashionable, whereas modern “workwear” will very likely never be a fashionable style.

      I suspect your final words are a subtle dig at me (and others that care about their style), so I would point out that I do actually restore and work on cars, dig my own potatoes and build stuff. I just don’t take photos of it, and when I am doing these things I wear clothes similar to what you wear, not the gear the professionals here wear!

      Reply

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